Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On consciousness-raising

I've been making an effort in the past year or so to use the female pronoun whenever referring to a hypothetical person. There was recently a discussion about pronouns over at Crommunist (and by the way, if you aren't reading Crommie, start now!), and coincidentally the gender politics of pronouns came up twice yesterday at work... so I've been thinking about it quite a bit over the past several days.

One can make an argument that simply replacing the male pronoun with the female one when referring to a hypothetical person is not really any better. I think this opinion commits the fallacy of ignoring the broader social context, but after some recent contemplation I'm going to go one further: Even if it really isn't any better, it's still a worthwhile exercise simply as a matter of consciousness-raising.

If you're a man -- especially if you are a white heterosexual middle-class man like myself -- it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of a person who experiences institutionalized bias. I can abstractly recognize that it's a little messed up for the male pronoun to just be acknowledged as the default, but that doesn't tell me anything about how it feels. However, experiencing other people using the female pronoun as the default, especially when I am being asked to picture myself in the role of the hypothetical person they are referring to... well that's an eye-opener. It feels weird, doesn't it? I think a valuable piece of knowledge is gained when one viscerally experiences that weirdness for oneself.

I'm also certain I would not have spotted one of the incidents yesterday were it not for the effort I have been making to substitute my default pronoun. Two co-workers were explaining to me some work they have done that involves a collaboration with educators, primarily with elementary school teachers. I noticed every time they referred to a student, they said "he"; and every time they referred to a teacher, they said "she". Both did it, consistently, without exception. (I'm probably going to mention something about it to them today or tomorrow, but I've been mulling over how best to approach it without coming off as confrontational)

So even if female-as-default really is no better than male-as-default (and as I said, I don't think that's necessarily the case when viewed in a broader context), it's still a good exercise in consciousness-raising. If you haven't tried it, you ought, at least for a little while. It's, well, it's weird. And I guess that's the whole point, isn't it?

The title to a PZ post today helped me tie this together with another thing I've been thinking about: Whether some of the more confrontational secular holiday displays that have gone up are a good thing or not.

While these displays surely tell the truth, and while I am certainly not concerned about constantly policing tone in general, some of these displays don't exactly make me feel holiday cheer inside, y'know? In a perfect world, holiday displays would all be positive messages, and some of the secular ones going up clearly are not. Negative messages are often necessary when opposing injustice or changing the social zeitgeist, but at Christmas/Channukah/Solstice? It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Yet I still felt like I supported the controversial displays anyway, even if I don't personally like them. And now I think I can articulate why: It's yet another exercise in consciousness-raising.

Yeah, these displays probably do make believers feel uncomfortable at a time when we as a society have traditionally tried to come together in mutual joy and generosity. But you know what? That's exactly how many non-Christians feel when an elaborate government-sponsored creche is on display to the exclusion of menorahs or Santa or anything else. That's exactly how many non-Christians feel when the War on Christmas people demand that Happy Holidays be expunged from our vocabulary in favor of an abject deference to Jesusmas. Like a man being asked to put himself in the place of a hypothetical person being referred to as a female, this asks Christians to momentarily slip into the shoes of a maligned minority, a minority whose holiday traditions are demeaned and devalued.

An eye for an eye is obviously not a good long term strategy, especially when we're talking about actual violence. But when we're talking about the possibility of maybe some mild discomfort and some hurt feelings, and when a big part of the problem is that the privileged group simply can't understand what it feels like to be in the out-group because they've never experienced it -- yeah, this is fair game.

Always using the female pronoun may not really be any better than always using the male pronoun. And an aggressively atheist holiday display may be no better than an aggressively Christian holiday display. But what both of these things do is make you think, to put yourself in the place of the other. That's what consciousness-raising is all about.


  1. Female used to be closer to default. General statements about humankind were in the form of "man" and "her" endeavors. "She" did this or that, in the role of generic human being.
    The sun as well. It's still the case for boats.

    Noun-genus varies a lot even between closely related tongues, though.

  2. Dawkins did the same thing when he spoke at TAM8.

    I liked it. It makes you aware of the gender bias that typically pervades typical English usage.